SACRAMENTO, Calif. (CN) - After being "carved out" of an amnesty clause in California's newest labor law, two Fresno farmers claim state officials are refusing to shed light on their exclusion or cooperate with a Public Records Act request.
Fresno-based growers Fowler Packing Co. and Gerawan Farming say they were left out of an exemption clause in Assembly Bill 1513 and punished because of past labor disputes with the United Farm Workers, according to a petition filed Thursday in state court. During a meeting with the growers, David Lanier, secretary of respondent Labor and Workforce Development Agency, allegedly called the public records request an "act of war."
The petitioners say the Labor and Workforce Development Agency then stonewalled their public records request for more than five months only to produce 119 pages of useless information that was already publically available, such as newspaper articles and old court rulings.
David Schwarz, the growers' attorney, said in an interview that the request was specifically tailored around the decision to exclude the growers from the amnesty clause and the state's communication with the United Farm Workers of America on the bill.
"There's been a complete iron curtain thrown around the negotiating and lobbying process," Schwarz told Courthouse News. "Yet at the end of the day, the author of this bill, Das Williams, said this deal was part of a pact with the [union] to exclude Gerawan and Fowler."
Signed into law this past September, AB 1513 revamped California labor laws regarding piece-rate compensation and requires employees to be paid for rest and recovery periods. The bill forced businesses to pay back wages to employees, such as fruit pickers and those paid by the mile driven, and was crafted by Gov. Jerry Brown in conjunction with labor unions and agricultural businesses.
The labor law passed both state houses with a combined 58-21 vote and was quickly signed by Brown.
At issue is the "penalty relief plan" that gave businesses a grace period to settle with and pay back wages to employees in return for protections from employment lawsuits and other penalties. The growers claim that being carved out of the relief plan opened them up to several class actions, while other businesses such as AT&T were given relief.
"The state's refusal to provide these records furthers secrecy in the political process and is itself an arbitrary exercise of official power," the March 24 petition states.
Schwarz said that while the labor agency took more than five months to produce the 119 pages, the state Legislature was "absolutely forthcoming." The Legislature responded to a separate public records request within nine days and quickly produced 49 pages, including a letter purportedly from Lanier.
In January, the farmers sued the state over AB 1513 in Federal Court, claiming that their exclusion from the amnesty clause violated their equal protection rights.
"The effect is to deprive their employees of the benefits promised to other farmworkers in this state. All of this was done at the behest of a politically influential union as the price of their support of this bill," Schwarz said.
On Thursday, two grower trade groups announced they were filing a "friend of the court" brief in support of the lawsuit.
"It is unseemly and shameful that the Legislature allowed the [union] to demand provisions that carve out two farm employers from a law that was otherwise thoughtfully crafted to get money to thousands of farm workers quickly and without subjecting employers to predatory class action lawsuits," Tom Nassif, president and CEO of Western Growers, said in a statement.
Thursday's 23-page complaint also raises conflict-of-interest concerns regarding the public records request, as it was initially handled by a state attorney who was also the lead prosecutor in several administrative complaints against Gerawan Farming. According to the complaint, the agency's general counsel Mark Woo-Sam wore "two hats" and was responsible for handling the request while simultaneously prosecuting Gerawan.
"The notion that a party advocate representing an adversary of Gerawan may obtain access to documents relating to Gerawan from another government agency, and then withhold such documents from Gerawan on 'confidentiality' grounds, creates more than an appearance of bias. It raises substantial due-process concerns," the complaint states.
Schwarz claims AB1513 was created during closed-door meetings between lawmakers and the labor union and that the public has a right to know why many companies were given protections but the two growers were not.
"We have been completely rebuffed by the agency that took the leading role in negotiating this. There was a lack of transparency in the legislative process," Schwarz said.
The labor agency declined to comment on the lawsuit, telling Courthouse News it hasn't seen a copy of the complaint as of Friday afternoon.
The growers are represented by Schwarz, of Irell & Manella in Los Angeles. They are asking the court for a writ of mandate ordering the labor agency to comply with the public records request and release documents regarding the decision to exclude the petitioners from the amnesty clause.
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